A positive plethora of bookshops has emerged in Nanjing in recent years. For good reason too; the government is pitching in as part of a wider effort for the Chinese populace to become better read. For the bookstore owners, such translates, in many case, into cheaper rents, as much as half price.
Some such bookstores may be pure Instagram novelty, while others have become superlatives.
With the rise of social media, how to bring readers back to traditional books with paper pages is the most difficult obstacle for bookshops to confront, one which also triggers physical bookshops to realise industrial transformation through online media and eye-catching decor.
Since its beginnings in 1999, Libraire Avant Garde has become a spiritual and cultural landmark of Nanjing. The BBC placed it in that corporation’s top ten most beautiful bookstores in the world, while CNN called the store the most beautiful bookstore in China. Such accolades no doubt were of help when it came time to spread the store’s wings; there are now 13 Libraire Avant Gardes in China, 10 of which in Nanjing and each with their own characteristics.
The original location, in the 4,000-square-metre former car park under Wutaishan needs little introduction. Down the road, its newest incarnation, in the Yihe Library, is divided into three floors. The first floor consists of a bookstore, a cafe and a creative library. On the left is a pure log bookshelf and wooden coffee tables and chairs. On the right is the sand table exhibition, which mainly shows tourists some miniaturised Republican-era-style buildings.
With almost 20 years under its belt, Libraire Avant Garde might unfairly get all the attention. Competition is around the corner, however. Herein, The Nanjinger’s pick of the best.
Sisyphe Bookshop (西西弗书店), located in the Huanyu shopping mall of Maoye Plaza, takes advantage of big data to categorise books, making it a daddle for shoppers to locate their preference among the many book shelves.
Quite and peaceful are the watchwords of Wanxiang bookshop (万象书坊), at 8 Jinyin Jie, a stone’s throw from Nanjing University. Something of a secret garden for university students around Gulou, hidden from the hustle and bustle of city, the store is also a retreat for freelancers, typing as they do with a cup of coffee.
A former branch of Zhonghua Bookstore that can now lay claim to the oldest bookshop in Nanjing, launched in 1913, Guji Bookshop (古籍书店), at 220 Taiping Nan Lu, may not be fancy-looking but it still has its regular customers. Officially categorised as an ancient bookstore, find everything old therein; old books, thread-sewn books, paperbacks from the Ming Dynasty and even rubbings from tablet inscriptions on the second floor.
Golden Eagle may now have shopping malls all over eastern China, but its spiritual home is Nanjing. And so, each Golden Eagle now also sports its own bookstore, named G-TAKAYA (G-TAKAYA书店). With over 200 well-known brands, readers and shoppers can choose from some of the best creative, cultural and innovative items in the world, in addition to fancy stationary items that can polish up anyone’s literary appearance; notebooks, deco-tapes, stickers, seals, memos, kraft paper, art knives, etc.
Final, and special, mention goes to Wine Bookstore (换酒书店) at 81 Jianzi Alley, in Laomendong. On their window, a slogan reads “晴耕雨读，书能换酒” (plow in the sun, read in the rain; exchange books for beer). Owned by one Zhang Xuejian, who graduated from the Department of History of Peking University and worked in the publishing industry for several years, Wine Bookstore is not only a bookshop but also a grocery store. The implication in the Chinese name“换酒” is “exchanging books for beers”. In the store, swap books as per “Five old books = A bottle of good beer”.
With many such bookstores each having their own particular appeal or niche, so many a bookshop has become an online hit, a spot for netizens to pop in and take photos of its good-looking and unique decoration or creative products. It’s a strategy that works; these bookshops are always flocked with people. Were photographers to become readers, they may have more than a shutter click’s look at the shelves.